The Inception of Dreams

Slick marketing evokes Lang’s Metropolis.

Roughly twelve years following their first feature films, these legendary directors delivered the following:

Fritz Lang:  M

Alfred Hitchcock:  The Lady Vanishes

Stanley Kubrick:  2001: A Space Odyssey

Twelve years after Following, Christopher Nolan invites us to dream along with him through Inception.  And while it’s operating on different levels than the Lang and Kubrick pieces, it shares in Hitchcock’s sense of dark fun and could easily be considered Nolan’s most ambitious and devilishly clever piece of work to date.  He’s an auteur with a full blessing from the studio and his audience, and the project he devised in this rarefied air is awe-inspiring.  Though there are some minor flaws, if you can’t find a way to overlook them and latch onto something meaningful in at least one layer of the dreams on display, then you have no business sitting in a darkened theater watching movies.

Christopher Nolan’s decked-out and high-concept new film brings new meaning to the idea of stealing ideas.  In his futuristic universe, technology has developed where you can enter the mind of another through dream invasions and steal their ideas.  It’s espionage…it’s dangerous…but what’s even more intriguing is the idea of diving deep into dreams within dreams and implanting an idea that can then spread like a virus and alter the shape of one’s universe.  Whoever implanted this idea into Nolan’s mind, we thank you.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a role that may play too close to his recent turn in Shutter Island for some) is the ultimate extractor of ideas.  But when a heist goes wrong, the person who was originally targeted (Ken Watanabe) turns the table on Cobb and asks him to implant an idea into the mind of his competitor (Cillian Murphy) that will destroy his greatest business rival.  Cobb assembles a cracker-jack team (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page in two pieces of stunt casting that pay off in spades, as well as Tom Hardy as both the muscle and the comic relief) but no matter how well prepared they are, there’s a wildcard invading the dreams (in the form of the hauntingly seductive and menacing Marion Cotillard) who runs the risk of sabotaging the whole operation.  To wade any deeper into the purposely convoluted and multi-layered plot would be a disservice to those who want to view the film with as little foreshadowing as possible.

In order to implant the destructive idea, the team must go dangerously deeper into the subconscious of the dreamer, and it’s all wonderfully explained at each crucial point (and some might find these explanations too long-winded) so that the audience is aware that the ultimate dreamer is Nolan, and he’s invited us into his most outlandish and exciting of dreams.  As they (and we) dive deeper and deeper, each layer seems inspired by Nolan’s favorite films, from a Kubrick-esque hotel where gravity is defied to a ski-lodge headquarters where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service seems to be running in an infinite loop to a an entire city on the edge of the world that is collapsing.  Nolan lets us in on his secrets at every turn…only to turn the tables on us in the end and leave us to wonder…what if?  Meanwhile, Nolan’s own team makes sure we enjoy every step of the way as Hans Zimmer’s score pulses through our blood, Wally Pfister’s cinematography stuns on every level, and Lee Smith’s editing makes all the interwoven moments come together so seamlessly.

I’ve been saying it for years now; Christopher Nolan is the new Fritz Lang.  If The Dark Knight was his Testament of Dr. Mabuse, then Inception is his Metropolis.  Whereas Lang looked at the grim prospects of technology and industry continuing to move outward and rape the natural world and oppress the masses, here in the 21st century, Nolan is exploring the dangers of technology that continues to move inward and invade the privacy of the privileged.  What could be more horrific than the idea of a social network that invades your dreams and steals your thoughts…or even worse, implants an idea in your subconscious that could ruin your life?  Woven throughout his works from Following to Inception are an overriding noir sensibility, the flipped narrative conventions, the mysteries and magic of storytelling/dreaming and the lies we tell ourselves, and the tortured anti-hero searching for redemption.  They say that the greatest of auteurs make the same film over and over.  Inception is Nolan playing on his most personal themes and injecting them with cinematic steroids.

Only time will tell if Inception is Nolan’s masterpiece.  The dream-logic he employs will be under harsh scrutiny, minor quibbles will be magnified, and repeat viewings will never match the initial “Whoa!” factor of seeing it on a blank slate.  It’s the type of film I instantly want to watch again and dissect to see if the architecture holds up.  It’s only been about an hour since I left the theater…and my head is swimming with ideas.  The biggest compliment one could pay a dreamer like Nolan is to say his film will give the audience a bout of insomnia.

When I finally go to sleep, I plan on dreaming of Inception.  Don’t wake me up.

Written by David H. Schleicher


This space will be dedicated to all the debate across the blogosphere around Nolan and Inception:

  • Kyle Hilliard makes a compelling case for Christopher Nolan being a modern day Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Our old pal Jake Cole over at Not Just Movies pens a massive and engrossing tome to the power of Nolan’s vision, the inherent flaws, and the best discussion yet of the soon to be classic “closing shot.”
  • Good pal Prakash over at Talking Talkies was apparently inspired by Nolan’s magnum opus to craft what is his best film review to date!
  • Jason Marshall at Movies Over Matter offers an energetically mixed review where he argues the film isn’t so deep but still a lot of fun.
  • David Cairns delivers a most interesting perception of Nolan and Inception at his Shadowplay blog.
  • Theories on what it all meant are being developed at The M0vie Blogbeware of spoilers before heading over.
  • Film Fix has some great ideas about the ideas in Nolan’s magnum opus.
  • Reel Eclectic isn’t shy about throwing around the word “masterpiece.”
  • The Scarlet Sp1der thinks everyone needs to Dream the Impossible Dream.
  • At Pop Goes the Culture, Inception is described as a “near perfect mind blow.”
  • Meanwhile, self-professed Nolan fanboy Kartik Krishan wonders why he was so confounded.
  • Roger Ebert, probably the most unapologetic movie lover amongst big time critics, totally gets it.
  • If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the official site.  I can’t get enough of that Zimmer score!

And for those who loved the whole Edith Piaf/Marion Cotillard (who played Edith Piaf and won an Oscar for La Vie En Rose) connection — and does that mean anything in the grander scheme of the film? — feast on this and just try waking up before everything folds in on itself:



  1. Bonjour! D.H.Schleicher,
    D.H.Schleicher what a very nice review and very nice screenshots used in your presentation too…I have only two things to say…

    First, I must admit since watching actor Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s Shutter Island. I can honestly, say that I ‘am actually looking forward to watching him in this film too…and Second, I am a fan of Nolan’s Dark Knight series too…Therefore; I cannot wait to watch his film Inception.

    [PostScript: Take a look at the names on your tags…namedropper!]
    Merci, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee – I think you are going to love it! –DHS

  2. D.H.Schleicher said,”Weaved throughout his works from Following to Inception are an overriding noir sensibility, the flipped narrative conventions, the mysteries and magic of storytelling/dreaming and the lies we tell ourselves, and the tortured anti-hero searching for redemption.”

    I do receive Film noir news on my Google feed(?!?) and film critics’ (reviewers) are already placing this film in neo-noir territory…Therefore, all I can say is…

    DeeDee – it is the epitome of neo-noir. Enjoy! –DHS

  3. EXCELLENT review….
    One thing I might add – viewer to beware – much like the phenomena after watching Cameron’s Avatar, where viewers reported “Avatar depression syndrome,” as a response to realizing that the beauty of Pandora does not exist, the viewer of Nolan’s Inception will walk out of the theater realizing that the beauty of dream inception can not be a part of their reality…yet.

    Highly likely that I will pay the exaggerated movie prices to see this film again…and again…and again…

    Jessica, good point — and a nice play on one of the film’s major themes! I can’t wait to take other people on this ride and see it again and again, too! –DHS

  4. This thread is to kick-start a ranking of Nolan’s films. More so than any director today, Nolan’s films rely on a “Buy In” factor on first view — and though I have discussed how repeat viewings can alter my thoughts on his films, I applied these ratings based on that initial “Whoa!” reaction and how much I was willing to buy into the idea of the film.

    Here’s my train of thought for now:

    Inception – 10/10
    Memento – 10/10
    The Dark Knight – 9.5/10
    The Prestige – 9/10
    Batman Begins – 9/10
    Insomnia – 8.5/10
    Following – 7/10

    How would you rank his films?

  5. Great dissection. I am more excited than ever to see this film! And thank you very much for the callout to my piece! I think the two posts compliment each other very well. Thank you!

    Kyle, thanks, I thought so too regarding our posts complimenting each other. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts after you see it. –DHS

  6. I’ve got a great deal of my review left to write (it’s gonna be insanely long because I came out with a stack of notes compared to my usual few pages). I LOVED this. Loved it in a way that makes the Dark Knight look like just an above-average blockbuster, and I’ve been defending that film and its undeniable issues for two years. I understand some of the complaints leveled at it, but I think he’s made a heist film for the ages, and even the aspects of it, and Nolan’s style in general, that typically falter — his habit of just cutting scenes without the instincts to know that the scene should have gone on longer or been cut shorter, his expository dialogue — work within the context of the movie. I should have my review up tonight before I leave on vacation in the morning.

    Jake, I can’t wait to read it! I agree with what you say about Nolan’s usual flaws — it’s as if in this film he came to terms with them (and who he is as a filmmaker) and found a way to make it all work within the context of this story/dream — hmmm…much like the protagonist Cobb did in the film. I’m feeling things folding in on themselves and seeing a hall of mirrors. –DHS

    • Jesus, I wrote a 3000-word piece on it, and that was the SHORT version. I got so wrapped up in plot that when I cut it I lost about 1200 words.

      Awesome piece of work, Jake! You gotta love directors who dare us to write “bigger” so that we can better describe their work. –DHS

  7. I enjoyed you review and the movie! Very impressive! Thanks for taking the time to visit my page and commenting! I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Thanks for reading! –DHS

  8. Love the review! And your comparison between Nolan and Lang has shed new light on the movie and Nolan’s career – thanks!

    Thank you, Dustin! — DHS

  9. Thanks for the mention on the post! Looking forward to more of your reviews!

    Glad to have you here at The ‘Spin! –DHS

  10. How is Ellen Page/Joseph Gordon-Levitt stunt casting?

    What bugs me about this is that many of the supporting characters were rather thin, if entertaining and well acted.

    Both Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are most well known for quirky indie dramedies — Juno and 500 Days of Summer. I, for one, did not expect to find them kicking ass here and thought their casting was a big gamble in something like this. Gordon-Levitt owned those anti-gravity fight scenes and Page was shockingly effective. I didn’t mind the “thin” nature of the supporting characters…as they weren’t the dreamers. The film was all about Cobb/Nolan. –DHS

  11. Well David, I waited a few days to respond to this excellent essay, until I actually saw the film. I did watch it with the family on Friday afternoon with the family and I’m close to your position with a 4/5 rating. I must think further before to give the Nolan listings (but I will tomorrow) but this is his most profound mind bender, that can only improve on future viewings. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s a mind rush like few films I’ve seen and the great cast and Hans Zimmer’s music are part of the equation here in a big way.

    Sam, I’ve been thinking about how both this film and Winter’s Bone are great examples of neo-noir but representing the opposite extremes — Winter’s Bone being realistic, gritty, independent and feminist while Inception is fantastic, slick, mainstream and old-school “guy on a mission/femme fatale” driven. And both are brilliant in their own context and representative of the best of American cinema. –DHS

  12. Excellent review. I completely agree when you say, “What could be more horrific than the idea of a social network that invades your dreams and steals your thoughts…or even worse, implants an idea in your subconscious that could ruin your life?” It’s already happening, isn’t it.

    Inception had a simultaneous release in India too. And man am I happy!

    I was awe-struck and speechless, when I watched it a couple of days back, to the extent that I am a bit wary about reviewing it right away. I’ll let it sink in to me and probably give it a second viewing before I finally sit down to review it.

    I would also love to see your reaction/review/dissection after a thorough second viewing.

    Prakash – yes, in ways I fear it is already happening. I heard the film is doing bang-up business in India — glad you are all able to share in the dream! I look forward to your review! — DHS

  13. What do you think of the fact that in each movie the leading lady has to die, and her death transforms the main character – the event MAKES him – Memento, Dark Knight, and now Inception?

    Chevalier – Good point. I think Insomnia and Batman Begins are the only films where this obsession of Nolan’s does not pop-up. The fact that Nolan always wants to kill the protagonist’s wife is a matter his own wife Emma Thomas might want to take up with him. And I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course. Perhaps he is secretly resentful of her for some reason – I notice she is often the producer on his films and thus perhaps controls the funds? –DHS

  14. Well I liked the movie, but I have to disagree that Nolan is the modern day Fritz Lang or that this is the equivalent of “Metropolis.” I doubt Lang would be concerned with the “privacy of the privileged” if he were making movies today. And I don’t think Nolan has made a great movie yet. He’s made some good ones and some very good ones, but nothing great. I’m posting my review of the movie soon. I’m sure you will have much to disagree with.

    Jason, I didn’t mean to imply the two filmmakers are equal, only that they both tapped into their respective cultural zeitgeists through “big time” filmmaking. The strongest parallels between the two I feel are with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Dark Knight. Metropolis is an inherently flawed film as well (I recall someone once saying, “The biggest problem with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is that it will always be Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but it transcends its flaws due to it’s groundbreaking nature. Only time will tell if Nolan’s Inception leaves a similarly lasting impression. –DHS

    • OK, fair enough. I guess my problem came from the fact that I think “Metropolis” is a great movie, one of the greatest ever. I was put off when I thought you were equating the two movies.

      Jason, I love Metropolis and think it was truly revolutionary, but it was far from perfect. But that’s another discussion for another time when looking at Lang’s body of work. I wouldn’t rank it as Lang’s best film either. That of course would be M. But, yeah, I still totally dig it, especially the recently re-mastered edition. –DHS

    • Oh, and my Nolan rankings are:
      The Dark Knight A-
      The Prestige B+
      Inception B+
      Batman Begins B (I think, it has been a while)
      Memento B

      I haven’t seen “Insomnia” since it was released and don’t really remember my reaction to it and I’ve never seen “Following.”

      Jason, I would only recommend Following to people who really want to see how Nolan got started. It’s an interesting film, but as a first film it is naturally very unpolished. –DHS

  15. I’m not sure about ranking Nolan’s films – I do think that The Prestige is my favourite (to be controversial). I did love this movie, though. Thanks for the link.

    Darren, I’ve noticed that The Prestige has developed into the “cult favorite” amongst the Nolan cult of fans. –DHS

  16. In terms of your point on favourite films, there was possibly a touch of “Dark City” to the world that Cobb and Mal create here, especially where it towers above the beach and comes right down to the water’s edge.

    I will definitely be curious to see this work again.

    Your idea of “twelve years” also has me intrigued. I am going to put that to the test very soon on a variety of different film-makers!

    Thanks a lot also for the link & kind words!

    Longman, good call on the Dark City connection. Let me know what you find when looking at other directors “twelve years” into their careers. I don’t know what made me initially think of it….just something I noticed, I guess, while looking into Nolan’s influences. –DHS

  17. I’ll spare you all the flattery since it seems everyone else is showering you with praise (even though it’s deserved), but I will say your review was a breath of fresh air.

    I searched WordPress for “Inception Review” to see if I was the only one who said more than “OMG OMG THIS MOVIE WAS SO AWESOME!”. It’s so much more than just “oh a total mind-f*ck” and great acting. I could literally talk for hours about how many things Nolan & Co. absolutely nailed, and I literally can’t stop thinking about it.

    A good movie makes you tell your friends to go see it. A great movie makes you demand they see it, all while rambling on like a 14 year old girl waiting in line to get Robert Pattinson’s autograph. Inception made me do the latter.

    Kyle, well said, sir! –DHS

  18. AWESOME movie and so thought-provoking. Nolan did a masterful job. Ellen Page kind of bugged me because her presence on screen is not terribly strong, but I have no other quibbles. I loved the hotel scenes — sooo cooool, and sooooo like real dreams — and the thread of Cobb’s secret about his wife. It takes considerable concentration to keep track of the levels once the third one starts, but it’s rewarding. I’ve been “following” Nolan and have to say, he’s a keeper. I wasn’t terribly impressed with “Insomnia” — why remake a movie that was absolutely fine in the original???? And they’re going to do this again with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and another example of an awful remake = “Vanilla Sky” — but this movie rates a 10+.

    BTW, David, “Weaved throughout his….” should be “Woven throughout his….” (smile)

    Love your reviews!

    Cinda, I don’t quite understand the idea of remaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Thanks for the edit! Consider it corrected. –DHS

  19. SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!! Do not read this thread if you have not seen the film yet!


    Has anyone now had the chance to see INCEPTION more than once? If so, what are your thoughts?

    I found it held up very well the second time around and that it is ultimately designed to let the audience decide what happened.

    I find there seems to be four popular theories that are supported by various (and sometimes contradictory) details in the film:

    1. The film happened just as it was presented to us and in the end everyone was awake in reality, the “inception” of Fisher was a success, and Cobb was reunited with his children.

    2. The film happened just as it was presented up to final “kick”. The final scene with the spinning top tells us Cobb is still dreaming, and this “happy ending” is just another deeper level of his subconscious he is now trapped in.

    3. The whole film was actually an “inception” of Cobb – as to what idea was being implanted and what the outcome was is up for interpretation.

    4. The whole film was actually Mal’s dream and all characters were projections of her subconscious at different levels of madness.

    • Haven’t seen it again yet, but plan to. The crucial scene, in my mind, is when Cobb and Saito meet in the “limbo.” Saito reaches for a gun after asking if Cobb is going to kill him. The cut comes before we see whether Saito or Cobb gets the gun and what happens.

      Now, if Cobb is “killed” then the rest of the movie is actually his “dream” in limbo which supports the spinning top in the final scene.

      BUT (big but too), we don’t see if the spinning top actually continues spinning strongly or stops. It’s beginning to lose momentum when the scene cuts. So, I think that could be interpreted as either he’s dreaming, or total uncertainty about where Cobb is. And then there’s the question about Saito, and if Cobb would want to wake up…..

      My big question about the ending: where are Saito’s and Cobb’s bodies? Wouldn’t they still be on the plane in first class, snoozing away? And would anyone be able to wake them? Or are they in a coma? The fact that we don’t see this also supports the notion that we are seeing Cobb’s dream at the very end.

      However, before everyone wakes in the plane, the point where we return to Cobb’s dream, there are scenes of the rest of the team, except Saito, rising up through the levels, which points to the strong possibility that everyone else made it back OK.

      So, I’m looking forward to seeing it again…..

  20. Here’s another cool thing uncovered about the music…which goes to show Zimmer’s score may have been better and more appropriate than many have given it credit for (and meant to be a cue to the audience to let us know how “deep” a dream layer certain scenes were). It also goes to show the level of thought Nolan put into every aspect of the film – love or hate the end result, that is a true auteur.

  21. Bonjour! D.H.Schleicher,

    If I didn’t think that there was a true connection between director Christopher Nolan’s films and film noir after reading this article Inception Director Christopher Nolan Recalls Creepy Noir Classic

    from the Vancouver Sun all I can say is…I believeI believeI believe! (As I shake my head ever so…slightly.)
    By the way, did you receive your package that I sent to you…yet?
    Nice video too!
    Merci, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee, great article! I have to see that Lang entry – Human Desire! I meant to drop you a line…yes, I did receive the package! Thanks. I haven’t had a chance to watch the film yet, though I look forward to it. –DHS

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